Troops head for hurricane-stricken Haiti as personnel, equipment evacuate southern bases

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 5, 2016

WASHINGTON — Up to 200 U.S. servicemembers began deploying Wednesday to support relief operations in Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, as the U.S. military evacuated personnel and equipment from bases in the southeast threatened by the storm.

Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, the chief of U.S. Southern Command, said a group of 100 soldiers and Marines and nine helicopters were expected to arrive Thursday in Port-au-Prince where they would conduct surveillance flights. A small group of Southern Command personnel arrived Wednesday in the Haitian capital to prepare for operations to support the U.S. Agency for International Development at Haiti’s request.

In the United States, about 1,600 National Guard troops were activated Wednesday and thousands more were on standby as several military bases in Florida and South Carolina ordered evacuations of personnel, aircraft and ships.

The powerful storm was downgraded Wednesday morning after it battered parts of Haiti and Cuba overnight, killing at least 16 people before moving north toward the Bahamas.

Tidd said late Wednesday only Haiti had requested U.S. military help, and Southern Command had prepared a task force to respond, including the heavy- and medium-lift helicopters and several Coast Guard cutters.

“As anticipated, Hurricane Matthew has caused very heavy wind damage and extensive flooding in Haiti’s southern [regions] where strong winds have downed trees and power lines,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “We think we’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going to be requested, and we think we’ll have the right parts in place to respond.”

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center predicted the storm would retain hurricane strength as it proceeds along the coast toward North Carolina by Sunday.

More than a dozen U.S. military installations stand in the hurricane’s current path up Florida into coastal Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Officials at military installations at several Florida and South Carolina coastal posts ordered evacuations of non-essential personnel and family members. Installations in coastal Georgia and North Carolina – including Fort Stewart, about 30 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, and Camp Lejeune along North Carolina’s coast – were taking a wait-and-see approach.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in 13 counties, including those surrounding Fort Stewart, headquarters of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. But the installation’s soldiers remained on normal training status as of Wednesday morning, a post official said.

“We're proceeding as normal for the time being,” Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson said. “But we’re urging our families and employees to prepare now for the storm.”

Commanders at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort ordered non-essential personnel to evacuate, including the about 6,000 recruits at the island basic training site, said Capt. Greg Carroll, a Marine spokesman at Parris Island.

The base’s top commander Brig. Gen. Austin E. Renforth, determined Wednesday afternoon it was “the safest course of action” to move the recruits to Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany in Georgia.

“Recruit training will resume aboard Parris Island when conditions are met for safe travel back to the Depot from MCLB Albany and when training can be properly conducted here,” Carroll said.

Parris Island officials on Tuesday sent an advance party of Marines to the Georgia base to make preparations if Renforth decided it was necessary to move the recruits. They also ordered busses to move the future Marines, Carroll said.

Southern Command evacuated non-essential personnel from its headquarters in Miami on Wednesday, Tidd said. The Air Force evacuated personnel from Patrick Air Force Base in southeastern Florida and from Joint Base-Charleston in South Carolina, said Erika Yepsen, a spokeswoman for the service.

The Air Force also moved 29 aircraft from the Charleston base and 45 from Joint Base Langley-Eustis to avoid the storm, Yepsen said.

Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated about 500 National Guardsmen to respond to potentially the worst storm devastation along eastern Florida since 2007.

In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley issued an evacuation order for Beaufort and Charleston counties and activated about 1,100 Army National Guardsmen to assist with the evacuation process, according to a Defense Department statement.

National Guard officials in Georgia and North Carolina said their troops had not yet been activated but thousands had been placed on notice to prepare in case they are needed.

The DOD was also preparing staging centers for any necessary federal government response at three installations, said Army Maj. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Personnel and supplies will be staged at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany in Georgia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina and North Air Force Auxiliary Field in South Carolina in the case of a federal emergency.

Army North Commander Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan said Wednesday that the Army’s emergency response liaison teams had been activated in the southeast to work alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but they had not been tasked with any response. He said the Army could provide specialized capabilities to any relief effort, such as search-and-rescue and route clearance.

In the Caribbean Sea, the Navy pre-staged several ships and helicopters to provide relief if necessary, but those assets remained in a holding pattern Wednesday. Tidd said there use had not been requested as of Wednesday afternoon.

The Navy deployed the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, the USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport dock ship, and USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, to assist with the response. The Navy also deployed the USS Anzio, the USS Montgomery and the USS Iwo Jima from Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Fla., to avoid the storm. Warships weather such storms better at sea than at port, a Navy official said.

Initial assessments of the base Wednesday at Naval Station Guantanamo in Cuba, where some 700 non-essential personnel and family members were evacuated ahead of the storm Tuesday, showed “no significant damage,” said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command. Operations associated with the 61 law-of-war detainees remaining in the base’s prison were not interrupted, he said.

Hurricane Matthew was classified as a Category 3 storm late Wednesday as it moved through the Bahamas. According to the National Hurricane Center, it boasted winds of 120 mph and models showed it could strengthen to a Category 4 storm as it neared the Florida shore Thursday. The Associated Press reported the storm killed at least 11 people Tuesday including five in Haiti, where it washed out bridges and roads and left rescue workers isolated from several remote villages hit by the storm.

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

Sailors handle lines for the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima in Jacksonville, Florida on Oct. 5, 2016, as the ship prepares to get underway due to Hurricane Matthew.

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